Research

 

Research Profile


The Arctic Studies Center explores cultures, history and environments of the northern part of the globe, and conducts research throughout the circumpolar region. ASC anthropologists specialize in archaeology, ethnology, ethnohistory and aspects of human-environmental interactions from the Ice Age to modern times. The Center also investigates modern processes of cultural contact and transformation from the perspectives of history, contemporary affairs, demography, geography and ecology.

The Arctic Studies Center's research profile has four topical focus areas:

History of Northern Peoples and Environments
Culture Contact and Transformations
Collections
Collaboration and Partnerships
New Arctic Research Projects

Over the past thirty years, Smithsonian research has helped revise early conceptions of circumpolar peoples as marginalized, impoverished inhabitants of worthless lands. Research has demonstrated that northern peoples adapted creatively to their difficult environment, developing ingenious technology, beautiful art and new forms of social and religious life. Arctic peoples maintained contacts and continuities across Bering Strait for thousands of years while other cultures of Eurasia and North America diverged in isolation. ASC research is also discovering new knowledge about responses of northern cultures, peoples and environments to climatic cycles and global change.

Perhaps more important than its research and exhibits, the ASC has developed new techniques that reconnect Smithsonian researchers, collections and archives with living knowledge-bearers of the North's native peoples. Community archaeology projects provide science training for northern students and teachers. Knowledge repatriation programs conducted by community scholars and museum researchers jointly study, publish and return archival information to northern villages and schools. By emphasizing access and equality with Native and northern peoples, the ASC has invigorated and redirected museum anthropology to serve the goals of scholarship and the aspirations and needs of today's northern people.


History of Northern Peoples and Environments


Arctic Studies Center anthropologists research the circumpolar regions from 40,000 years ago into modern times. Interactions between humans and their environments through time are important features of these studies.

William Fitzhugh's work in Labrador, Baffin Island and Quebec reveal a long, complex history of Indian and Inuit (Eskimo) cultures adapted to climatically-sensitive forest and tundra zones of the Far Northeast. Aron Crowell has researched the history and environmental relationships of early cultures of southern Alaska and Kodiak Island with special emphasis on the impacts of geological instability and resource variations on coastal inhabitants. Stephen Loring studies Labrador Innu (Indian) and Inuit (Eskimo) culture history, working closely with Native people and biologists to investigate how humans have utilized caribou from Paleolithic times to the present. Research Associates Noel Broadbent, Daniel Odess and Douglas Siegel-Causey research history, ecology and subsistence adaptations of northern peoples from ancient times to the present in Canada, Alaska and the European Arctic.

Through its studies of ethnographic groups like the Siberian Nenets, the Native peoples of Bering Strait and Western Alaska, and the Labrador Innu and Inuit, the ASC staff and associates have revealed the beauty, tenacity and resiliency of traditional cultures adapting to the modern world. Most of these research programs are conducted in partnership with native or local communities.


Culture Contact and Transformations


Contrary to the opinion of early explorers who saw arctic peoples as isolated survivors of Ice Age cultures, research shows that these groups have in fact maintained close contacts with each other and with peoples to the south, and participated in many of the world's technological and social advances. Improvements in hunting technology, metallurgy and animal domestication pioneered in southern regions quickly became part of northern life, just as northern inventions like kayaks and snow goggles became adopted widely in the south. Today, with modernization reaching nearly all corners of the globe, cultural transitions have been especially dramatic in the Arctic, where until a few decades ago many Native peoples had economies based solely on hunting, fishing or reindeer herding.

Igor Krupnik has researched ethno-history and processes of cultural transformation in Russia and western Alaska. Research Associates Ernest J. Burch, Jr., Ann Fienup-Riordan and Norman Hallendy study ethnohistory, ritual and symbolic culture in Alaska and Canada. And ASC archaeologists have investigated Native-European contacts in Russian America, Labrador and Frobisher Bay as well as culture contact and change in Native traditions of Eurasia and North America.


Collections


The Smithsonian's northern anthropological collections at the National Museum of Natural History and at the National Museum of the American Indian includes nearly 100,000 ethnological artifacts and over 500,000 archaeological artifacts. Coupled with an unbroken tradition of ethnographic, archaeological and physical anthropological research, these collections provide unparalleled opportunities for research and education. Ethnological and archaeological collections provide data for studying such topics as the history of arctic peoples, the development of hunting practices, prehistoric exchange systems and evolution of art. ASC Interns and Fellows conduct post and pre-doctoral research projects utilizing these impressive collections. Community scholars survey our collections to research such subjects as traditional sewing and weaving techniques, use of dyes and pigments and native art styles.

The ASC's Anchorage office and the Smithsonian Alaskan Collections Project, conducted in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian, is dedicated to making these collections accessible to modern Alaska Native communities. In addition, the National Anthropological Archives houses both unpublished material from arctic researchers and many archival photographs, documenting traditional lifeways. ASC and Native scholars have found the archives a wonderful resource for research and for working with modern northern peoples to ensure cultural survival.


Collaboration and Partnerships


Utilizing our unique position as a U.S. government supported Arctic research program, ASC projects often receive support and collaboration from a wide variety of governments, institutions, groups and individuals. Scholarly programs, including research projects, publications and exhibitions, typically include teams of researchers, many from other countries. These international connections, and collaboration with our Research Associates, have contributed immensely to the quality of ASC research.

In recent years, ASC programs have emphasized collaboration with Native communities as an approach that offers exciting new research agendas and possibilities. A close relationship has developed with the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian which, like the National Museum of Natural History, has valuable staff and collection resources representing northern regions.




Archaeological research on Agattu Island